Art Market

We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.

At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.

I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.

“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”

I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.

Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.

Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*

*It’s also worth watching the developing Non-Fungible Token art world here.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.

Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.

The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.

I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.

In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.

The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.

Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.

Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.

Remember that this is a personal hobby.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

10 thoughts on “Art Market”

  1. “The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun” — Wow! Really? That’s this person’s idea of fun? Someone sounds like they’re wound a little tight.

    Hey, to each their own, even if it effects some of us adversely. The truth is, we did this to ourselves, and by “we” I’m referring to those of us who were around when this pastime morphed into a full-fledged organized hobby back in the mid- to late-70s. At first all your read in the media coverage of the early card conventions: “You won’t believe what these adults are collecting!” But instead of pushing the idea that collecting baseball cards was a nostalgic way of reliving the pleasures of youth and love for the game, we told them about the T206 Wagner and the ’52 Mantle.

    Then in the mid-’80s when the economy was soft, articles by people who should have known better (or done more research) in respected investment publications began touting baseball cards as a solid place to put your money. What’s happening now is just a redux of that. And, yes, it’s going to skew card “values,” but there’s really nothing that can be done about it. You’ve just got to be mindful of what’s happening.

    Hopefully, most of us share my attitude that I collect what I like and don’t worry about investment value. When Topps ran Project 2020 last year, I bought all of the Frank Thomas variations and immediately removed them from their sealed plastic casing on arrival. Not very smart on an investment level, but if I can’t put my hands on it, it’s really tough to count it as part of my personal collection. I don’t begrudge anyone their right to make a buck off the hobby, either now or 20 years later. Just not my idea of “fun.”

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    1. I will assume you’re not the one taking the Project 2020 cards out of their original case only to send them to a third party grader to have them placed back in a different case.

      Because of the stories about prices it is sometimes difficult to explain how I view my cards as a “collection” and not an “investment.” I have a pretty good idea of the dollars certain cards could bring but that’s not what I’m doing it for (though in grad school I funded a good portion of my collection at the time by buying lots, keeping what I wanted, and selling off the excess, sometimes at a reasonably high percentage of the purchase price of the entire lot) and it’s difficult to explain that the dollar values aren’t as important as the actual cards to people. So back when people used to have physical things like CDs or DVDs or VHS or cassette tapes I’d ask them if they had anything like that. Typically people would say yes I have a bunch of X. So then I would ask them if they viewed those purchases of that collection as an investment and what the dollar value of their investment was. As you might imagine I would get looks as if I had just arrived on the planet, but at least it helped me have a better understanding of my own thinking.

      And if they really don’t get that then I can tell them I certainly didn’t buy a handful of late 1980s Ed Hearn cards last week for their “investment” potential. Because I’m pretty sure I turned that $1.08 or so into zero cents if I tried to put them back on the market.

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  2. This is an interesting view, but one thing that differentiates cards from art is that there are so many different cards and and so many copies of some cards. The cards as art market concept works only for a small portion of the card market: the big name vintage cards and the extremely low production newer cards. Everything else is just a big ol’ pile of stuff!

    I’m a big proponent of zigging when everyone else is zagging. I’ve done it my whole life in collecting, in my career path, and other aspects of my life. I buy what I like and sometimes it is stupid stuff that just amuses me. I love cards, but they are the most frustrating aspect of my collecting because there are just so many, and every now and then the market goes crazy because a few special cards skyrocket and drag the rest of the card prices with it.

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  3. I’m pretty squarely in the “for fun” slice of the Hobby, but I have to admit even the fun is getting more and more expensive. Barring a huge reversal, cards I’ve wanted my whole life have now fallen completely off my want list, which in turn has pulled the rug out from under much of what’s kept me going as a collector. Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed making my own cards even more than buying real cards these past couple months. Then again, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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    1. I completely missed the forecast on what would happen to card prices once the pandemic hit – I figured people would start selling collections due to tough times and it would be a buyer’s market. Swing and a miss.

      I do wonder how sustainable the prices are in the vintage market (I’m assuming you’re referring to those cards and not the rainbow dazzle Jasson Dominguez shiny non-glossy x-fractor). Once people start leaving the house will they stop “investollecting” (Google says that word does not exist) and start spending money on more experience oriented activities? And then I also wonder how much the lack of a baseball season shifted focus away from some new hot “prospect.” Aristides Aquino came out of nowhere in 2019 – he was a 25-year-old outfielder who had been in the Reds system since he was 17. It doesn’t look like he was on any top prospect lists, and 25-year-old outfielders generally aren’t destined for the Hall of Fame, yet his cards got some attention. Sure the Jasson Dominguez’s and Wander Franco’s of the world are attracting attention, but they were attracting attention before the season was supposed to start. Cards of prospects are tough to flip when the prospects aren’t playing, but everyone knows what Mantle and Mays and Aaron did, so I think it’s possible some of the attention on the vintage cards will shift once a full season gets underway and people start shifting to the “next” Trout. But I’ve swung and missed once already so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in that forecast.

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      1. Okay, there are definitely 25-year-old outfielders destined for the Hall of Fame. But 25-year-old *rookie* outfielders generally aren’t destined for the Hall of Fame. At least that’s what Bill James says.

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  4. I’ve mentioned before… the “hobby” has split in two. There’s the side whose interests are rooted in nostalgia and aesthetics, and there’s the side that chases lottery tickets defined by rare instances of superstar names being printed on plastic-infused paperboard. This distinction is too seldom made in the recent blitz of hobby coverage spurred by soaring prices. Unlike rare art, modern baseball card rarity need not be accompanied by aesthetics. Only a low population count of a tiny fraction of players matters. That Mike Trout card… there’s no personality, no pleasing visual aspect beyond the dollar signs it represents.

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    1. Agreed! I follow the Topps Project 2020/Project 70 group on Facebook, and the division of people discussing “fun” vs. “dollars” is about 20/80. I don’t begrudge anyone their right to make money off the hobby, but you’re right, it is very much a lottery mentality over on that half of the hobby.

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  5. The value of any cards I have is a trivial byproduct of my mania for collecting them. I find myself more concerned about who I will be able to pass them onto who will take care of them rather than selling out.

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